The Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff celebrates its tenth anniversary this autumn, and as part of the celebrations the Mariinsky Opera, under its conductor Valery Gergiev, was invited back for a concert performance of Prokofiev’s comic opera Betrothal in a Monastery. Gergiev and his company had already given performances of Wagner’s Ring at the WMC, and his association with the theatre helped to draw a good audience for what felt like a gala performance of this unusual piece.

Anastasia Kalagina © Askonas Holt
Anastasia Kalagina
© Askonas Holt

Prokofiev and his partner, Mira Mendelson, adapted Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s libretto The Duenna, which Sheridan had written in the hope of getting an operatic success to match that of his theatrical triumph, The Rivals. Sheridan had recently married Elizabeth Linley, and it was her father Thomas and her brother, also Thomas, who wrote most of the music to a text which mimicked several of the events of Sheridan’s turbulent courtship. The central character, Isaac Mendoza, has recently converted from Judaism to Christianity, and can either be taken (critics differ on this point) for an 18th century anti-Semitic stereotype, or a more benign individual portrait. Prokofiev and Mendelson sidestepped this issue by giving Mendoza no more Jewish characteristics than the nickname ‘Solomon’ – which refers to his judgement, rather than his religion.

Prokofiev’s Mendoza is a rich fish merchant in Seville (that favourite location for comic opera plots) who takes his fish from the Guadalquivir and sells them at a lively fish-market. He is hoping to find a bride, and sets his heart on Louisa, daughter of the nobleman Don Jerome. Louisa is in love with Don Antonio, and her brother Don Ferdinand is in love with her friend Clara d’Almanza, and so the plot is set up for a double elopement, spurred on by the splendid figure of the Duenna, an elderly woman who acts as Louisa’s chaperone, sung at this performance by the great Russian mezzo Larisa Diadkova.

It is good to find a comic opera that actually makes you laugh, and especially good when the production, as on this occasion, is unstaged. Gergiev placed his orchestra on the stage, with the chorus behind them on a dais, and with chairs for the soloists. For all this simplicity, a good deal of comic acting was achieved, both by the soloists at the front and the comic band at the back, with Diadkova vying for laughs with the rotund, pompous and utterly beguiling bass Sergey Alexashkin as Mendoza. Another thing that made the performance go with a swing was the excellent set of surtitles – in English and Welsh – which were so well-timed that the audience’s laughter sounded like a response, not to the translation, but to the original Russian. That, in itself, is quite a feat.

Don Jerome, sung by the tenor Evgeny Akimov (sporting a beard which should, from the jokes in the libretto, have belonged to Mendoza) tries to set up a business partnership with Mendoza, and seal it with marriage between his daughter Louisa, sung by the young soprano Anastasia Kalagina, and the fish-merchant. Confusion ensues when Ferdinand decides that Louisa’s friend Clara is a little too fond of Antonio, and Antonio then turns up to sing a serenade to Louisa from under her window. Don Jerome hears the serenade and decides to waste no more time before marrying Louisa off to Mendoza.

In the second act, Louisa draws the Duenna into hatching a plan to let her marry Antonio, so that the Duenna can then catch Mendoza for the sake of his money. Incriminating love-letters pass from hand to hand, and are intercepted by Don Jerome, who fires the Duenna on the spot. But it is Louisa, not the Duenna, who leaves the house.

Valery Gergiev © Valentin Baranovsky
Valery Gergiev
© Valentin Baranovsky

The Mariinsky orchestra is made up of some splendid players, with a string section that makes Prokofiev’s intricate writing shimmer and glitter, and woodwind who make even the comic and parodic melodies with which this score abounds into something of beauty. The scene at the fish-market, with a chorus of fishwives calling their wares, has some vivid local colour which points up the exuberance of the score as a whole, without ever slipping into faux-Spanish pastiche.

When Mendoza meets the Duenna, taking her to be Louisa, she wins him over by flattery and he decides to overlook the fact that her looks are some decades past their best. Diadkova and Alexashkin worked this scene with the skill of old professionals, in the best Russian take on the commedia dell’arte, and a drinking song brought the first half to an end.

The plot thickens still further in the third act, when Clara and Louisa swap dresses, and fool Mendoza yet again. The real Clara, played charmingly by Yulia Matochkina, reluctantly retreats to a convent, resigned to a celibate life. Ferdinand is fooled by Louisa’s dress into thinking that Antonio is now courting Clara, while the real Clara is pleased to see how jealous he is.

Prokofiev wrote Betrothal in a Monastery in 1940 (although it was not staged until 1946) and it is surprising how little contemporary events were reflected in the score. The one exception might be the riotous drinking scene in the monastery which opens Act IV. Here the trio of monks was dominated by the phenomenal bass voice of the young Yury Vlasov as Father Benedictine, while the Putin look-alike Andrey Popov led the monks in a drinking chorus.

All ends happily (for some) with the two young couples paired off, and Don Jerome satisfied that both of his children have appropriate spouses, while Mendoza wonders how he will put up with marriage to the Duenna for the rest of his life. As well he might.